Craig Venter’s New Save-the-World Project: A 3-D Printer for Vaccines

Posted by Jessica Cussins October 25, 2012
Biopolitical Times

Craig Venter seems to take great pleasure in making outlandish claims about how he will save us all. At the inaugural Wired Health Conference held in New York City on October 16, he did not disappoint. He announced his plans to revolutionize healthcare with “a 3-D printer for DNA, a 3-D printer for life” that would allow one to print a functioning vaccine that had been digitized and emailed anywhere in the world.

Though he was willing to concede that “regulation will be an interesting part of this,” a look into the potential dangers of this technology shows that regulation needs to be more than just an “interesting” side note. Errors in printing could lead to unknown changes in the behavior of a vaccine and have harmful consequences. The opportunity for misuse is particularly terrifying. If a vaccine can so easily be shared around the world, so too can a harmful virus. Biological warfare that could claim your inbox as its battleground would have devastating consequences. As Wired reporter Daniela Hernandez notes,

Mistaking an American Express bill for a scam and deleting it might decrease your credit rating, but downloading, printing and injecting a dangerous retrovirus masquerading as a vaccine is potentially life-threatening.

For some, the idea of bio-printing vaccines seems plausible. Printing 3D objects already takes place: The US military, for example, can remotely print replacement parts or fix technical problems. Emailing and printing short segments of the sequence of a viral vaccine (though not the actual vaccine) already occurs as well. A recent article in New Scientist speculates that perhaps macromolecules could also be emailed “[a]s long as you have a printer that can deposit a repertoire of nucleotides, sugars and/or amino acids where they belong, and link them up chemically.”

Others are skeptical. Policy researcher Edward Hammond, for example, commented in an email that Venter’s project will not be successful “in our lifetimes, if ever.” He noted,

The sequence of a viral vaccine is many steps removed from a functional actual vaccine, the manufacture of which requires other physical inputs, for example media and equipment for conditions to grow copies (often unique to a specific vaccine); means by which to ensure proper dosing; needles; etc, etc, etc.…

But if such a "printer" existed, a few more steps away would be printing a functional pathogen… The security-minded folks out there simply would not permit such a thing to happen – they would not allow the essentially complete means to produce a pandemic pathogen to be placed inside an ubiquitous package whose owner merely needed to know how to press a button in order to operate the machine. 

Ain't gonna happen.

Venter's proposal may not become a reality anytime soon, but it could well be heard as a wake up call. As new biotechnologies alter the dimensions of safety and health, thoughtful regulation will be increasingly important. Understanding the risks now is the best way to assure that the technology develops in a responsible way.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

•    Craig Venter’s Bugs Might Destroy the World
•    Artificial DNA Presents Real Dangers
•    Writing Your Baby’s Synthetic Genome: Genetic Engineering for the Facebook Generation